TEHRAN, Iran – Thousands of Iranians swarmed the streets of Tehran on Tuesday in rival demonstrations over the country's disputed presidential election, pushing a deep crisis into its fourth day despite a government attempt to placate the opposition by recounting a limited number of ballots.
In Washington, President Barack Obama expressed "deep concerns" about the legitimacy of the election and post-voting crackdowns but declined to term Ahmadinejad's re-election a fraud.
"I do believe that something has happened in Iran," Obama said. "There are people who want to see greater openness, greater debate, greater democracy."
It won't come easy.
Iran's supreme ruler drew a firm line against any threats to the regime, warning Iranians to unite behind the country's Islamic system as authorities imposed severe restrictions on independent media.
After days of dramatic images of Iranians protesting the declaration of victory for hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the government said employees of foreign media could only cover events authorized and announced by the government. Foreign reporters in Iran to cover last week's elections began leaving the country also on Tuesday. Iranian officials said they will not extend their visas.
But the story could not be contained: Protesters were blogging events to the world via Facebook and Twitter.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made an extraordinary appeal in response to tensions over the disputed election, which has presented one of the gravest threats to Iran's complex blend of democracy and religious authority since the system emerged from the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
"In the elections, voters had different tendencies, but they equally believe in the ruling system and support the Islamic Republic," Khamenei said at a meeting with representatives of the four presidential candidates. "Nobody should take any action that would create tension, and all have to explicitly say they are against tension and riots."
On Tuesday night, he went on television to press for "calm," but he also referred to Ahmadinejad as the country's "elected president." That suggests he does not plan to overturn election results, according to the Britain's Guardian newspaper.
"These people who are creating all this (destruction) are just pursuing tension," Khamenei said. "Even if this result had not come out this way, the same thing might have happened."
Ahmadinejad, who has dismissed the unrest as little more than "passions after a soccer match," attended a summit meeting in Russia that was delayed a day by the unrest in Tehran. That allowed him to project an image as Iran's rightful president, welcomed by other world leaders.
Reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi has called the election an "astonishing charade," demanding it be canceled and held again.
His representative, reformist cleric Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour, reiterated that demand Tuesday after a meeting of the Guardian Council, calling along with representatives of two other candidates for an independent investigation of voting irregularities. The Guardian Council is an unelected body of 12 clerics and Islamic law experts close to the supreme leader and seen as supportive of Ahmadinejad.
Mousavi said Monday he believes the council is not neutral and has already indicated support for Ahmadinejad.
"If the whole people become aware, avoid violent measures and continue their civil confrontation with that, they will win. No power can stand up to people's will," Mohtashamipour said. "I do not think that the Guardian Council will have the courage to stand against people."
A spokesman for the Guardian Council, Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei, did not rule out the possibility of canceling the results, saying that is within the council's powers, although nullifying an election would be an unprecedented step.
In the afternoon, the government organized a large rally in Tehran, as if to demonstrate it also can bring people into the streets. Thousands waved Iranian flags and pictures of the supreme leader, thrusting their fists into the air and cheering as speakers denounced "rioters" and urged Iranians to accept the results showing Ahmadinejad was re-elected in a landslide Friday.
The appeal for unity failed to calm passions, and a large column of Mousavi supporters — some of them with green headbands and their faces masked against tear gas or to hide their identities — marched peacefully along a central avenue in north Tehran, according to amateur video.
A witness told The Associated Press that the pro-Mousavi rally stretched more than a mile along Vali Asr avenue, from Vanak Square to the headquarters of Iranian state television.
Security forces did not interfere, the witness said, and the protest lasted from about 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Other witnesses told the AP that about 100 people continued the protest in front of state TV past 9:45 p.m. The witness spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisal.
Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri became the most senior Islamic leader to throw his weight behind pro-reform protesters on Tuesday, McClatchy reported.
"No one in their right mind can believe" the official results, he said.
A chilling account in The Wall Street Journal of Monday's huge gathering, which included hundreds of thousands of Iranians in a sea of humanity that stretched more than five miles from the square, quoted a member of the Basij national security force who said he was ordered to beat protesters but refused. The voluntary force is aligned with the nation's fearsome Revolutionary Guard.
"They have given us the go to beat the crowd, all the way," the man told a Journal reporter as they observed the huge rally from outside a government building. "There is a gang of Basij guys upstairs with batons and guns, but they can't tackle this crowd, it's too big."
The interview was interrupted by gunfire, which prompted the man to run inside the building as the rally degenerated into chaos.
After images were shown around the world of Monday's mass protests and violence, authorities said foreign media, including Iranian employees, could only work from their offices, conduct telephone interviews and monitor official sources such as state television.
At least 10 Iranian journalists have been arrested since the election, "and we are very worried about them, we don't know where they have been detained," Jean-Francois Julliard, secretary general of Reporters Without Borders told AP Television News in Paris. He added that some people who took pictures with cell phones also were arrested.
A Web site run by former Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi said the reformist had been arrested.
Saeed Hajjarian, a prominent reformer, also has been detained, Hajjarian's wife, Vajiheh Masousi, told the AP. Hajjarian is a close aide of former President Mohammad Khatami.
Iranian state radio said seven people were killed in Monday's protests — the first confirmation of deaths from the demonstrations that started Saturday after the election results were announced. It said people were killed during an "unauthorized gathering" at a mass rally after protesters "tried to attack a military location."
Up to three more protesters were reported killed during clashes on Tuesday in Vanak Square, according to McClatchy.
Mousavi, who has urged his supporters not to resort to violence, said on his website that he planned another large demonstration along the path of Monday's massive protest, for Wednesday afternoon. He said they have asked the Interior Ministry for permission but didn't say whether they got a response or if they would go ahead if rejected.